Pain and Gain

Pain and Gain Crime doesn’t pay.  Director Michael Bay goes the distance to remind audiences of that necessary lesson because it also gives him the opportunity to glorify and glamorize every ugly facet of it.  Sitting through Pain and Gain, an alleged black comedy that exposes the danger of American greed, I’m left to contend that the writers and actors sought to dig up a fascinatingly dark tale spun so unbelievably from the ground up that 15 percent of it must actually be true.  After all—this is a true story.  I could have used a newspaper clipping of said story or even a mere tweet.  Bay’s punishing drama lasts 130 gruesome minutes.

The story takes place in 1995 where a Miami fitness guru, Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a smarmy snake with muscles, slithers his way into a senior position at a gym and manages to triple its membership within a short amount of time.  But the cash isn’t green enough, and after a few interactions with self-made titan sleaze Walter Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), Daniel decides he can give the jerk what’s coming to him and steal all of his dough.

To do it, Daniel recruits the bronze mammoth and reformed ex-con Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) and the steroid abuser Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie).  Together the odd-trio team attempt a series of failed executions at nabbing Kershaw before finally kidnapping him and then torturing him for three weeks until he signs over all of his finances and possessions to the unorthodox bodybuilders.  The gang seals the deal by killing him, or so they think, and Kershaw escapes near death.  Held captive in a hospital bed, Kershaw’s repelling personality and lack of convincing evidence regarding his abduction cause the police to laugh off his account of events.

Left broke and broken, Kershaw hires a retired private investigator (Ed Harris) to find the three tank-sized clowns that stole everything from him.  It ends up only a matter of time that Daniel and his pals fall victim to the temptations of the wealthy lifestyle and they compromise their plans, setting off a series of idiotic judgments and actions that lead them to further murder and destruction.

pain and gain imagePain and Gain happens to illustrate everything about soulless filmmaking.  Despite decent performances from the cast, the script never allows us to care for anyone of these hulking doofuses because they’re all so vile and violent.  Wahlberg’s character should carry the story in a tragic fashion, but he’s so unlikable in every conceivable manner, as are the other characters who fall victim to his manipulations.  Johnson has the most well-rounded role as the beefy aggressor who has found Christ, only to immediately find the devil in Daniel.  Mackie plays the third hand with little of interest added to his character.

When the characters fail, Bay makes sure we feel the pain.  His music video-style only glamorizes the violence and depravity.  These three men become enforcers of brute punishment, and rather than explore any psychological dimensions of these characters, Bay plays the outrageous blackness of the film for laughs, only they don’t hit as hard as his three leading actors—if ever.  Instead the director lights up the screen with oil, sweat, and sunlight and plays his misogynistic melee tale for all its worth, consistently objectifying women and playing up the volatile chumps and their violent ways as something to be desired.  From the outset, we don’t understand these characters in any possible way, so why spend 130 slow minutes trying to laugh off their bloody antics?  Bay thinks he’s delivered a cautionary tale, but instead his penchant for cinematic destruction provides a herd of antagonist morons doing grotesque things that are meant to look ‘oh so cool’—which reminds me of another one of Bay’s ugly and overlong crap chutes from ten years ago.

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Real Steel

The writers behind Real Steel propose that boxing at some point in the next decade will become too dangerous for humans to get into a ring and punch each other.  I would assume by then the MMA will have to turn into Fight Club.  Instead audiences will become engulfed by dueling Transformer-like robots controlled by programmers outside the ring.

Following the Night at the Museum flicks, Shawn Levy directs another special-effects filled fantasy featuring a lacking father trying to rebuild a relationship with his young son.  Shedding his claws for joysticks, Hugh Jackman enters as Charlie, a down-on-his-luck former boxer looking to settle major financial debts with the wrong people by purchasing fighting bots and betting on them in low-key fights.  Complicating his lifestyle on the road is his 11-year-old son Max (Dakota Goyo).  After the sudden death of Max’s mother, Charlie has to sign over parental rights to the boy’s wealthy aunt and uncle.  Without caring anything for the boy, Charlie agrees to giving up custody for $50,000 in a secret deal with Max’s uncle.  The catch: Charlie has to agree to look after Max for the summer while his guardians are out of the country.  The stubborn father and willful son have no interest in each other, and yet have their love for boxing in common.

Charlie invests his money in a famous Japanese boxing bot that ends up getting demolished in its first fight.  Looking in junkyards for scrap parts, Max discovers an outdated sparring robot named Atom.  Max gives Atom a thorough tune-up and discovers that it has a rare shadowing feature that allows the robot to mimic his operator’s movements.  This gives Atom the ability to be trained by both Max and Charlie and store real boxing maneuvers and moves.  The father-son duo start earning quick cash as Atom proves to be a worthy opponent in the ring, scoring several unlikely wins that leads to a title shot against the undefeated world champion robot.  Max bonds with Atom, and ultimately and more importantly with his father.  Thus Charlie ends up with a comeback shot with Max while their bot fights for the title.

Levy throws Rocky, Over the Top, Transformers, and a giant bottle of syrup into the blender to deliver a film built entirely on formula and familiar beats.  I was surprised I didn’t find the film’s recipe on the back of my ticket stub.  The characters laugh on cue, cry on queue, and the movie practically invites audiences to stand up and cheer by the end credits.  But you know what?  I didn’t care.  Both Jackman and Goyo create a believable relationship onscreen making Real Steel the perfect movie for fathers and young sons, complete with impressive visual effects that have hulking metal clamoring for our entertainment.  Levy’s effects team surpasses the destructive mayhem of Michael Bay’s Transformers as far as convincing robots go.  The bots of Real Steel have weight to them.  They’re affected by gravity.  I was thoroughly impressed and believed these boxing matches even if I didn’t believe in them.  This is fantasy, and in a world of virtual gaming, any boys under 12 years of age will be loving Real Steel to the last bolt.  And I bet their fathers might have just as much fun.

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The Hurt Locker

Here is the sharp, intelligent action-thriller audiences have been craving and probably missed.  Why the studio opted to keep this one in limited release is beyond me.  “The Hurt Locker,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Strange Days), could’ve broken the stigma on Iraq-war films and, with some solid marketing behind it, may have easily performed to the tune of at least $60 million, or a total similar to 2005′s “Jarhead.” Oh well, so much for living in the past.  The intensity of the film can still be taken on its own terms, and luckily “The Hurt Locker” has been making the rounds in most critics’ top-ten lists for the year, receiving a lot of Best Picture buzz and wins around awards’ circles.  And the credit is most certainly due.  This film is razor-sharp.

Jeremy Renner (28 Weeks Later) shows off some acting chops as Sgt. William James, the new team leader of a group of bomb diffusers operating in Iraq.  He has two other soldiers working with him to provide his cover fire as he dresses himself in a protective bombsuit to disarm the weapons.  His rogue-like ways soon test the other members’ trust in their squad-leader, and the risk of their already-dangerous job increases.

This film has a superior director in Kathryn Bigelow, whose amazing talent and feel for the material makes for a truly ambitious film.  Her movie captures much of the action ‘pow’ while keeping it in a realistic, intense, and intelligent environment.  The actors help, especially Jeremy Renner whose performance has received a good deal of attention.  While the film caught critics’ attention last year at film festivals, it is finally earning its keep this year.  Granted, the film didn’t get enough exposure or box office performance to find a Best Picture Oscar, but the Academy nominations are certain, and Bigelow might walk away with a much-deserved “Best Director” statue if she can fend off former hubby Jim Cameron and his “Avatar” opus.  “The Hurt Locker” is easily one of the best war films of the last decade, and I’m glad to see it finding the recognition it’s received this year. 

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